Earlier this month one-person show “Finding Elizabeth Taylor,” starring Elizabeth Claire Taylor and directed by me, opened in the New York International Fringe Festival to a full, enthusiastic house. The next morning, I celebrated on my balcony by attending to my flowers, neglected of late.
As I reconfigured my garden, removing deadwood, reshaping bushes, repurposing old pots, creating contrast and focus points, I realized much of the process was like what I’d done with Elizabeth.
She came to me with a show she’d already produced twice with two different directors. Like my balcony garden, it needed work. Parts of it didn’t fit, parts had gone stale, and other parts never belonged there in the first place. She knew this, which is why she sought me out.
When she read the script for me, I said, “I notice you rushing. How about if you begin defining this as the last summer you rushed?” She took that idea to heart, and it changed how she works, both as an actor and as a writer.
I showed her how to work like a gardener by analyzing what she has, determining what’s needed and what to trim. The comedy blossomed as we removed the excess, converting past tense to present and narrative to action. We wrote new material, added film clips, and made connections. She rewrote diligently between our sessions, and in a short time we had created a harmonious whole by making room for the actor.
Every day, Elizabeth unlearned previous ways of delivering the material. We replaced old directorial choices with more profound ways to embody the text. She learned how to “play actions” rather than to show a feeling. We experimented, adding mime and dropping props.
As we moved into a freshly written portion of the play, we discovered how her willingness to move from “presentation” to embodiment allowed her a new fullness of emotional affect and awareness of her impulses. She found a renewed joy in performance.
We developed a great rapport, and because she trusted me, she was able to make adjustments quickly. As she gained proficiency in moving from fourth wall to direct address to asides—and back again—she gained a new fluency in her communication skills. She found a greater personal investment in the story.
We made room in the text for her actor self to expand, and it paid off. Her new show is refreshed. Like my garden, it still needs to be tended and nurtured, but because of our work, her reshaped play is now blooming.
Playwright, director, and actor Cheryl King is the creator of Stage Left Studio. An acting coach at “All My Children” for three years, she has directed more than 35 productions and performs weekly. www.cherylkingproductions.com.